On occasion, Marc Vetri’s father would labor for hours over spaghetti with crab, a feast that lured in the neighbors. “It wasn’t often,” says the James Beard-Award winning chef of his dad’s speciality, “but it seemed like everyone stopped by when he made it.”
Reared in Philadelphia, where today he presides over a growing collection of beloved rustic restaurants that all distinctly celebrate Italy—from his eponymously named flagship, to the soon-to-open grilled meats haven Lo Spiedo—Vetri remains close to those childhood memories forged in the kitchen. Beyond his dad’s spontaneous pasta-making missions, Sundays were reserved for visits to his Sicilian grandmother’s house, where the family enjoyed “big Italian-American dinners with the meatballs and the gravy. I always headed down earlier just to help because I loved it so much,” he remembers.
This nostalgia percolated while Vetri worked in restaurants throughout his college years at Drexel University (“I enjoyed the vibe”), and then in Los Angeles for the likes of Wolfgang Puck at Granita while studying jazz guitar. A few years later, he was bored and finagled an opportunity to take a gig in Lombardy, at Taverna Colleoni dell’Angelo. Nearly two years of cooking and eating in Italy transformed Vetri’s perception of restaurants. “I knew this is what I wanted to do,” he says.
It was definitely innovative for that time. Everyone who walked in was like, ‘Where’s the eggplant parm?’
After his return from Europe, Coco Pazzo and Bella Blu beckoned in New York, but Vetri was eager to hightail it back to his hometown and show Philadelphia that Italian cuisine was more than baked ziti and other red-sauce standards. In 1998, he did exactly that by opening Vetri in an intimate townhouse—the former home of Gallic warhorse Le Bec-Fin. “It was definitely innovative for that time. Everyone who walked in was like, ‘Where’s the eggplant parm?'” he says. “I had to tell them we didn’t have it, and then they would ask how we could be an Italian restaurant. We taught them that Italian food could mean so much more.”
Sixteen years later, the Philadelphia dining scene is one of the country’s most dynamic, littered with tiny, chef-owned haunts that embrace Vetri’s pioneering ethos. Still, his $155 tasting menu at Vetri, divided into fish, vegetable, meat, and dessert offerings, remains as much of a draw as if the restaurant had just flung open its doors.
“It’s crazy what’s happened to the restaurants here,” Vetri says of the explosive growth. “There was barely the Internet back when I opened. I just wanted a little 30-seater serving the food I knew how to make. I wasn’t thinking of changing the world.”
Vetri’s ascent into the ranks of the country’s most influential restaurants was just an upshot of its founder’s talent and ambition. From the meatballs he rolled as a kid to almond-tinged pasta he created as a chef, here are 10 of the dishes that embody Vetri’s endless curiosity for Italian cooking.
Spinach Gnocchi with Brown Butter
I first tasted something like this when I was in Italy, and just started messing around with my own version until it worked. This was one of the first things on my menu at Vetri, and diners used to ask me, “How can this be gnocchi if you aren’t using potatoes?” It has evolved. I used to serve it as just one big gnocchi, and then it went up to three, five, and eventually 12 when we had the à la carte menu because people started whining that it wasn’t as large a portion as the other pastas.
Almond-Ricotta Tortellini with Truffle Butter
I fell in love with this in Italy but didn’t have a recipe for it, so I played around until I got it right. What makes it special is the stuffing: ricotta blended in the food processor, added to almonds, Parmesan, truffle puree, and an egg. It’s almost like an almond paste.
Shaved Raw Artichoke Salad
It was just something simple I put on the menu when artichokes were in season, but everyone loved it. I sliced the hearts thin and added a bit of lemon and olive oil with shaved Parmesan over arugula. Between the salt, the acid, and the texture, it’s a great balance. It’s almost tannic the way it makes your mouth pucker up. (Photo: wn.com)
The true way to enjoy fish, I think, is roasting it whole. I like locking in the flavor and steam with a salt crust. It holds in the juices, and when you crack it off, you find crazy juicy fish underneath. It’s just one of those things we became well known for early on. (Photo: thewrightrcipes.com)
Charred Brussels Sprouts
No one ate Brussels sprouts when we first did them, but people quickly learned to love the vegetable. There’s a fine line between burnt and perfectly charred, and you have to hit it right to get that proper crunch on the outside while making sure they stay soft on the inside. Ten seconds too long, and they’re ruined. (Photo: Philly Food Lover)
Sal’s Old-School Meatballs
Sal is my father, and I helped him make the meatballs for my grandmother’s Sunday suppers. It was her recipe and I ate them—a mix of beef, pork, and veal with bread soaked in milk—my whole childhood. When I opened, Amis all I wanted to do was put those exact meatballs on the menu as homage to him.
Rigatoni with Chicken Livers
Served at Osteria, this dish is one of those magical things that grew out of an experiment. We tried serving minced chicken livers as a ragu over rigatoni, and people went crazy for it—something we weren’t expecting. (Photo via Food Republic)
Chocolate Polenta Souffle with Vanilla Gelato
I have been making this dessert since 1992; it was one of my signature dishes when I was at Bella Blu, in New York, and it’s been on my menu since. There was an old chocolate flan recipe that I didn’t like, and I just kind of made my own riff on it by adding polenta for a little bit of texture. It’s one of those dishes that just came together.
Roasted Turbot on Potato Pancake
This is another special whole roasted fish preparation, with olives and tomatoes. We slice it with the bone in, and roast it on the actual potato so the potato gets all the flavors of the dish.
Roasted Capretto with Soft Polenta
I’ve been obsessed with baby goat for years. This dish was inspired by my visit to a restaurant in Italy’s Piedmont, da Cesare, where they put one on the wood spit. The weight and the fire were just right. I’ve worked for years and years to perfect this.